Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
Bible Study month came to John and I as an idea, following the great feedback we received on sermons earlier in the year on the Sermon on the Mount; evidently many of you appreciated the opportunity to delve into a well-known passage and find new nuggets of meaning and truth. But we also decided to embark on this month of intense teaching, because we are more and more aware that for many people, the Bible is a scary, scary book. If we take all the Bible as bearing equal weight, we find ourselves confronted with violent stories, messy theology, a confusing God, and fairly messed up human characters. Without a doubt, it is a lot easier to preach on Gospel passages than anything else.
And yet this book is the grounding for our entire faith. We believe that this book bears testament to the Word of God, made perfect in the person of Jesus. So why is it that for many of us, interactions with the Bible take place only for an hour on Sunday mornings? Why are we reticent to engage in Bible studies in our small groups or cell groups? Is there a fear that we aren’t educated or experienced enough to be wrestling with these texts, without the help of a wise shepherd or lecturer?
John and my deepest hope for this month, which may turn into an annual event, is that we will inspire you to take Bible study much more seriously, and devote more time to it in your daily lives, as an act of faithful discipleship. Some parts are undoubtedly easier to read and comprehend than others, and yet every passage has the capacity to bring us to a profound experience of God’s love, if we have the courage to allow it. So we’ll be doing some intense teaching, but also giving you tools so you can do good bible study yourselves.
So, let’s talk about Colossians. It’s actually not that remarkable a book, in the grand scheme of the New Testament; it’s one of the shorter writings of the New Testament, and very similar to Ephesians. But Colossians has played a significant role through history in the development of orthodox Christian thinking. It is Colossians that emphasizes for us that salvation is not something we receive at the end of life, but something that can be realized here and now. It also emphasizes that Christ is not just Lord and Saviour of our individual lives, but that Christ is the head of the church, not any human, and that Christ seeks to redeem the entirety of creation, not just humanity. This is where we get the phrase “the reconciliation of all creation”, which is near-quoted in our Basis of Union. As well, Colossians gives Paul his credibility and authority as a truly significant apostle and teacher to the early Christians and to us – a couple of weeks ago, Uncle Ray called Paul “the greatest theologian the world has ever seen.”
These important aspects of Colossians greatly affected Christian thought in more recent history too. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, it was Colossians that attracted special attention in pulpits and beyond; why do you think this was? What was happening at that time? Big questions around science and religious pluralism. And then in the 20th Century, it was particularly Colossians that helped many European Christians formulate their reasons for rejecting Hitler and Nazism – why? Because Colossians emphasizes a rejection of any truth unrelated to Christ as Saviour and Lord.
One of the most important things we absolutely must do when reading the Bible is to remind ourselves where and when passages were written. For example, passages seemingly condoning slavery were written in a time and place that was not 21st Century Australia, and we have to remind ourselves of that. When we say that the Bible is timeless, we are actually distorting its function and purpose. But we also need to remind ourselves that, in the case we have before us, this was a real letter, written by a real person, to other real people, in real time. This is not a once-upon-a-time fairytale; this is a legitimate piece of communication between a person and a community.
Now there are many different opinions on who wrote this book, but for the sake of simplicity in this Bible Study month, let’s say that the apostle Paul wrote it, to the Christian community at Colossae, a city of Asia Minor. This community would have converted not from Judaism but from paganism to the Christian faith. This is unusual; most early Christians were originally Jewish, and many tried for a long time to exist as Jews who also believed in Jesus. It was maybe a hundred years after the Easter event that Jews and Christians would split paths into separate faiths.
Paul wrote this while he was in prison; he was imprisoned a number of times by Rome for announcing Jesus and not Caesar as the risen Lord. So Paul wrote this in a jail cell on the coast of modern-day Turkey, shackled, probably with very little light. Interestingly, Paul had never met the Colossians, he didn’t start this Christian community, and he had no expectation of visiting it in the future. His connection to this community was through his friend Epaphras, who was a Colossian himself, and perhaps started the church there. Epaphras visited Paul in prison, and through that conversation he updated Paul on how well this Christian community were doing overall; verse 8 says Epaphras told Paul about their “love in the spirit”; what does this mean? To Paul, it means that these new Christians had traded the behavior that marks most of the world – lust, anger, lies, things that break up communities and families – with kindness, gentleness, forgiveness and acceptance of one another as members of the same family, regardless of how multicultural they likely were. This, for Paul, was a sign of God’s work in their community, and he couldn’t have been happier about it. The Colossians were living as people of the resurrection… I wonder if we are, today…
Epaphras also mentioned some of the issues this community were facing, tempting them to turn away from Christianity. In response to this, Paul wrote this letter to address these issues, challenging them to a more marathon-like devotion to Jesus. Like lemurs, we too can be tempted and distracted by the very many things on offer today – better offers for our precious Sunday morning time, better offers for our financial resources and so on. Christ demands more of us.
Paul, who is like a mother duck to all these new burgeoning churches, after greeting them in his usual manner, and thanking God for them, exhorts the Colossians to grow in wisdom and spiritual understanding. So like a mother duck wants her brood to be able to work out for themselves how to feed, to avoid danger, and to live wisely in a threatening environment, Paul longs to see these new Christians growing in their faith and discipleship, and coming to know for themselves what God’s will is for them, so that Paul doesn’t have to be mother duck anymore. Christian teachers and preachers can talk and mother until they are blue in the face, but unless the hearers have and work on this inner sense of understanding, this awareness of God loving them and shaping them into more Christ-like people, their teaching won’t produce genuine mature disciples.
Paul also draws a picture of God that is different to what many non-Christians and Christians alike feel that God is like. Many, many people would assume a) that God doesn’t want us to have a good time, and b) that even if we try to live as God wants, all we’ll ever get is a grudging approval. But verse 10 shows us how wrong these assumptions are. God’s intention is for human life to flourish and bear fruit; what Paul said in verse 6 about the gospel, he now says again about the people themselves, in whose hearts and lives that word is doing its work. Paul quite often declares that genuine Christian living gives God pleasure. It is we, who have little faith, who have somehow imagined God to be grumpy and hard to please. Be released from that image, people!
Verse 13 talks about God rescuing people from one kingdom and giving them another, where redemption and forgiveness are the themes of that rescue operation – this has clear echoes of the Exodus from Egypt. What God has done in Jesus is the new Exodus, the new movement of setting the slaves free. To become a follower of Jesus is to leave the “Egypt” of sin, and to travel with gratitude towards the promised inheritance. Why with gratitude? Because the apex of Paul’s prayer is that these new Christians will learn the art of thanksgiving. This is something he will mention repeatedly; it’s really a theme of the whole letter. What Paul most wants to see growing in the church, as a sign of healthy Christian life, is gratitude to God for the extraordinary things God has done in Jesus, and the remarkable things God continues to do in the world and in their lives. This, right here, is why our first prayer on a Sunday is a prayer of adoration and thanksgiving. We are called to be a people of deep gratitude.
We then get to the famous Christ-hymn, which has a real poetic or hymnlike quality, making it stand out from the rest of the letter – in fact, many scholars have suggested it might have been written by someone else, or was part of an early church liturgy. A whole sermon could be delivered on this poem, looking at its very clever writing. And part of growing up as a Christian is learning or realizing how to take delight in the way in which God’s truth – whether in physics or theology or music or whatever – has a poetic beauty about it – in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “the world is charged with the splendor of God.” But I don’t think this poem was inserted in to provide a kind of literary entertainment to the listener. Paul inserts this poem in to tell the Colossians something they badly need to know – that is, that Jesus is central and supreme to everything, all the time. The more these Christians get to know and know about Jesus, the more they will understand who God is and what God has done, and who they are as a result, and then what it means to live in and for God. In fact, most of the rest of Colossians is an exploration of the meaning of this poem – for example, in 2:3 where Paul declares that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ himself.
If you have time this week, go slowly through this poem and ponder the depths of meaning to be found in it. Christianity isn’t simply a particular way of being religious; it isn’t about a particular system for how to be saved; it isn’t simply a different way of holiness. Christianity is about Christ, and this poem helps us rediscover this man anew. And unfortunately, I’m running out of time to explore this poem in depth with you all, but I do encourage you to read and reread it yourselves – and respond, as Paul encourages the Colossians, with sincere gratitude to the One it points to.
Verse 22 goes on to talk about that big word, reconciliation that Jesus enables. When we hear this word, we might think of the wonderful thing that can happen when two family members who squabbled years ago are brought together, putting the past behind them. Or we might think of our ongoing work in repenting for the sins of the past in our dealings with Australia’s First Peoples, and building trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people again. It’s like that with humans and God, only more so. Through the cross, God and the human race have been reconciled, so we are free to approach God without a stain on our character. This is basically the summation of Paul’s message, and Charles Wesley’s.
But friends, salvation is not an instant thing. Christians who have declared Jesus as Saviour and Lord, can’t them sit back and do nothing about it. They, are we, are strongly encouraged to keep firmly on, to take responsibility to grow to maturity in faith. Becoming a Christian cannot be a one-off experience which then remains just as a memory of a wonderful moment, though many of us have had such wonderful conversion moments. We must become Christian every single day. It is actually by “keeping firmly on” that we build on that first conversion experience with strong foundations and walls to our faith.
The image of Paul rejoicing in his sufferings is very Pauline; he often talks about how his persecution and imprisonment are actually helpful to his ministry – perhaps because as long as he remains in shackles, opponents to the gospel imagine that they have it under control. In concentrating their persecution on Paul, they don’t bother about the new Christians who are growing up around him, in Colossae and other towns, leaving them free to be effective disciples and evangelists. And then the end of chapter 1 basically provides a summation of John and my role as preachers of the gospel: we are called to warn and teach you all with wisdom and energy, so that you all may grow in maturity as disciples in the world.
We end this week with the beginning of Chapter 2, which is like a hook or cliffhanger for the rest of this month and the rest of this book. These few verses are why Paul is writing this letter, it’s why Colossians ended up in the Bible, and it’s why John and I are exploring it with you this month. We want your hearts to be encouraged and united in love so that you might have all the riches of understanding, and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ. We pray that no one will deceive you with plausible arguments about what else you could put your faith in. And we, your ministers, rejoice to see the firmness of your faith in Christ.
So there it is, a very quick Bible study on the first part of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. All I can say is, if you take a Bible passage slowly and carefully, think about each word, and perhaps look at other versions of the Bible, the learning will spring up itself, and you will gain more each time you delve in. Bible Study: it works, it’s required, and it can be fun! Amen.